“Over the years, Shahjahan had transformed himself into a full-fledged Indian. He had a voter identity card, a ration card and an Aadhar card… On the occasions that he travelled back to Barsila, Bangladesh, Shahjahan was careful to not carry any of his Indian identity documents… ‘If I am intercepted there, I will show them my Bangladeshi identity card. If someone asks me for identity proof in India, I will produce my Indian card,’ Shahjahan declared. I asked him if he considered himself an Indian or a Bangladeshi. ‘Ami Bangali,’ was the simple reply.” – Borderlands by Pradeep Damodaran
Folks that live closest to borders least see them. Equally, they are the most afflicted by them. Lines get drawn. Lives get halved, quartered, sundered. Borders come with consequences, most often unhappy consequences, unhappier than the reasons that caused them to be drawn. In a manner of speaking, the line Lakshmana had etched in the earth for Sita after Rama had gone chasing after the golden mirage of Mareech in the Dandakaranya bush was also a border. Sita crossed it; consequences followed – an abduction, an assault and an epic war, regime change. Borders can be tricky and troublesome things to violate. Yet they have forever tempted crossing, consequences no bar.
It is probably a fair surmise that the first boundaries our kind came upon were all natural – a forbidding and limitless ocean, a high and frozen range, an impenetrable length of jungle, a gorge of dizzying depth, a tormenting stretch of desert, the vacuous depths of space. They were all attempted and overcome. We are an itinerant species, we’ve gone more ways and farther than any other on the planet. We will not remain static, or bounded; for one reason or another, we will move – sustenance, commerce, conquest, wonder, wanderlust, often plain lust; it’s moot what Cleopatra might also have invoked in Roman legionnaires – other than prospects of more region and riches – for them to swarm south across seas and sands.
The first intimations of organized boundaries between one suzerainty and another come, in fact, from Cleopatra’s geography – Sumer in or around 3000 BC is where sovereigns partitioned communities with fair rigidity and control. But humankind always travelled, from one place to the other. It’s how the Silk Route came to be. It’s how Kautilya may have ventured all the way from Taxila to Pataliputra. You probably required a lot of daring and determination, and a fair bit of good fortune, but folks travelled in far greater numbers than history had time or care to record. The annals of borders remain hazy and conflicted. Some accounts reckon that the first organized border, as distinct from a frontier, which was a much looser and osmotic demarcation, in the Christian Era was the one that Andorra erected in 1278 to demarcate itself from what shape France and Spain were then. Other narratives would prefer a later date: 1648 and the boundaries drawn and agreed upon as a result of what’s called the Peace of Westphalia, a series of territorial agreements that brought to a close (temporarily, as we were to later and repeatedly realize) the ravaging religious wars of Europe. What was to soon follow the Peace of Westphalia was a comprehensive disruption and re-ordering across other parts of the globe – the consolidation of colonial conquests in far-off continents and the slicing and distribution of spoils, the beginning of the establishment of borders as we would come to understand them.
But, most certainly, that wasn’t the end of that process. It has not ended, because human nature will not let it. The arbitrarily drawn line somewhere turns into a challenge, even an affront, to both the human instinct and human endeavour; it restricts in ways that it begins to nudge and prod violation. If not through the self, through proxies – a mule laden with goods for exchange, a carrier raven taped with a missive, a spy, most often – nothing is able to dupe man better than another. The violation of borders is intrinsic to our kind, and it is often both the cause and the consequence of it.
For all the adamant insistence of nations on the iron-clad inalienability of borders, they remain, and will remain, an impermanent and changeable thing. Look around, and count the borders that have changed shape in our lifetimes. How did the wall that tore one Berlin from another and made two Germanys of Germans come to fall? How quickly did the satellite vassals of the Soviet iron curtain become other colours on the map? What’s become of Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Balkans? In Africa? In Africa the colonials drew the vertical and horizontal lines so straight it’s plain to sense they couldn’t be bothered about who or how they were dividing up the native people of the continent once they were done with their ravaging, or even before. More awaits. Many frontiers await renegotiation and resettlement. Moscow’s claims over Crimean Ukraine. The on-now-off-now agitations between Russia and Japan over the Kurils. The bloodied, unfinished masonry of Israel-Palestine. The anxieties over Brexit in the Isles and on the European mainland, those too are about borders. The pulsing scar across the two Koreas. The contrary longing that may ring off that little island called Cyprus, not Greek, not Turkish, not either, merely neither. The plastered sentiment that often resounds off pubs across both sides of Éire. It’s the same cry you may chance upon the fledgling borders that came up in our parts – one a little more than a mere seventy years ago, another much more recently: ‘I am Punjabi’; ‘I am Kashmiri’; ‘I am Sindhi’; ‘Ami Bangali‘.
The modern nation state and its defined protocols and obligations are a reality that we, in our respective spaces and polities, swear oath upon and pledge to protect. But there are also people and their identities and requirements and aspirations, and obligations to them. As humanity to human beings. Humanity through history has been brutal upon its kind as no other species. It has, very often, also survived and prospered by being the opposite.
In a 2017 tract titled The Decline of Civilization: Why We Need to Return to Gandhi and Tagore, the Iranian political theorist and philosopher, Ramin Jahanbegloo, wrote: “Though the history of civilizations in all parts of the world has not always been peaceful and cultures and societies have remained isolated from one another, yet in the past the idea of common humanity triumphed over perceived differences time and time again. Each time polarizing revolutions and wars fractured civilizations everywhere at different periods of history an emphatic vision of common humanity emerged. The common shared sufferings were embodied by a common human capacity for empathy and exchange. One could say, therefore, that the core meaning of human civilization has always been related to the idea of appreciation of a common humanity. There is in the history of human civilization an emotional action beyond the facts and the events, in terms of human empathy.”
What was it that the Mahopanishad said? Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. Or there was, more recently, a certain John Lennon who sang “Imagine”. Lennon was shot dead, but that song is still sung.